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Stair-Rods and Stars: A Cycling Perambulation

Stair-Rods and Stars: A Cycling Perambulation

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Stair-Rods and Stars: A Cycling Perambulation

280 pages
4 heures
Jul 19, 2016


Seven years of adventures, wild camping and cycling around many of Southern England's most famous trails, have reached their fruition in Stair-Rods and Stars, a humorous paperback travel narrative, written in reverse chronology, giving the feel of a gradually unfolding adventure.

Adam Colton, who visited every mainland lighthouse in England and Wales with his father for his 2003 book England and Wales in a Flash, began the jaunts with the aim of filling in the gaps between the coasts he'd previously visited. He discovered a network of canals, disused railway lines and ancient trails from The Ridgeway to the Shaftesbury Drovers Path while ticking off his list of 'must see' features, from Glastonbury Tor to Cheddar Gorge to Avebury Henge.

The book pieces together snippets of historical knowledge with the kind of musings that can be conjured up while sleeping in hedges, heartily eulogising the therapeutic qualities of getting back to nature in a way that may just prompt the reader to do something equally wacky.

Jul 19, 2016

À propos de l'auteur

Born in 1975, Adam Colton is a writer of humorous travelogues and short stories from Kent, UK. His first paperback documented an attempt to visit every lighthouse on the mainland coast of England and Wales undertaken with his father, Roger Colton, who published and contributed to the book which was featured on the BBC news to mark National Lighthouse Day and became the subject of a question on the quiz show, University Challenge.Since then, Adam has straddled the line between documenting his lightly philosophical UK travel escapades and mind-blowing fiction. One of his stories was short-listed for the HG Wells festival's short story competition. He is also a writer of topical songs, performing as one half of the duo Adam and Teresa, whose song 'Fat Cats with a Death Wish on the M25' received airplay on BBC Radio Kent.Bibliography:England and Wales in a Flash (2003) - with Roger ColtonMud Sweat and Beers (2006)Seven Dreams of Reality (Conundrum Sampler vol.1) (2009)Bordering on Lunacy (2011) - with Roger ColtonThe Kent-erbury Tales (Conundrum Sampler vol.2) (2012)Stair-Rods and Stars (2015)Codename: Narcissus (2020)The Dream Machine (Labyrinth of Dreams) (2020)The Nightshade Project (2020)

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Stair-Rods and Stars - Adam Colton



Appendix – Further Routes


About Adam Colton


How did it all begin?

I like to imagine that the seeds for this book were sewn back in 2006, when I did a kind of 'deal with the devil.' The devil in question was my friend Tom, who accompanied me on a hike from an obscure village in Kent to an obscure village in Somerset, armed with little more than a two-man tent and an axe.

Folklore has it that the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson exchanged his soul at a crossroads in return for his guitar playing prowess – a kind of Matrix-style download straight into the brain, courtesy of Lucifer. If he is currently burning in purgatory or worse, I imagine he wishes he'd skipped the international acclaim part and become an accountant, or whatever the 1930s equivalent of the most boring job in the world might be. I can say this; I did this job once!

During that two week hike, I imagined a metamorphosis taking place – I would return super-confident at having survived two weeks of extreme hiking and sleeping in the woods, powered up and ready to commence 'The Life of Adam Part II.'

But as with all the best plans, the trade-off was something different. Tom and myself merely swapped brains. Tom's aim at the time was to reject society's norms and pursue the 'Easy Rider' style dream of travelling from place to place, whereas I quite fancied meeting a nice girl and living the prescribed 'balanced' lifestyle.

Almost a decade on from that fateful walk, Tom is now married with two children, whilst my fiancée is from a country that the UK is only slightly more friendly with than North Korea or Syria. Aside from this, I spend much of my free time cycling from town to town and camping in the nearest wood, or failing that, copse or hedge.

And so, I give to you my experiences, seeking out the cycleways of Southern England, waking up to birdsong and gazing up through the trees from a warm sleeping bag, hoping that those aren't rain-clouds overhead.

Keen cyclists will find plenty of route suggestions here, as well as routes to avoid, whilst normal people can merely chuckle at the anecdotes from the warmth and comfort of a cosy room.


1) Bawdy Basingstoke

The easiest way to write this book is in reverse chronology, in the hope that more recent memories will create a kind of seismic brain-wave, loosening the memories of earlier trips, a bit like an archaeological dig through one's own cranium. If you've ever seen the Christopher Nolan directed film 'Memento' you will see the kind of effect I am hoping to achieve – a kind of gradual revelation, making sense of the earlier material, which is actually the later material, as things go on. What you'll probably get instead is a collection of unrelated, beer-clouded memories.

Our story begins on a reasonably sunny September morning. It was a Saturday and my local rail line in Kent was closed for engineering works (nothing new there), so I caught the 'replacement bus' to the town of Ashford and boarded my train from there. Not heard of Ashford? Don't worry, you will do. By 2030 it is predicted to be Kent's largest town. A local songwriter humorously wrote an ode to the town along the lines of 'Come to Ashford before Ashford comes to you.'

I unchained my bike, pleased to see that no joker had decided to let down my tyres or buckle my wheels (they say there's not a lot to do in Ashford), but I was less pleased to see a huge dollop of bird excrement across one of the handlebars. I pulled up some large leaves from the ground and tried to wipe the off-white substance away without touching it. However, it had the texture of oil and seemed to cling tenaciously to the rubber hand-grip. As a result I can imagine a situation where somebody could ask, Oi, is that bike for sale, mate? to which I'd reply, No, there's already a deposit on it!

As you can see, I've decided to aim high at beginning of this book with that perennial favourite topic of bird's mess. You've still time to bail out and pick up the latest Dan Brown or something. But you're not going to do that, are you? To be honest, I am using the topic as a lure to get you to keep reading. It's like the worm on the end of the hook, except that the worm on my hook has already been digested!

My journey to Woking continued via the slow train to London Waterloo, which Southeastern, the rail operator, tactfully terms 'the mainline,' as opposed to the more expensive 'high speed' train that gets you from Ashford to London in half the time and empties your wallet at a similar velocity. As I sat waiting for the Woking train to depart Waterloo, I experienced an announcement which was bordering on comatose, with each word seeming as though it was being extracted via a syringe, syllable by syllable. The woman with the buffet trolley smiled and I suggested that the guard sounded like he needed a coffee.

And so I alighted, just outside the M25, in Woking – Surrey's second most populated town after Guildford. The narrow street leading away from the station had all the usual attractions – McDonald's, KFC, a kebab shop, etc. but I took the 'healthy' option of popping into a newsagent's for a samosa and a bottle of Lucozade.

Then it was time to begin the ride, cycling casually past the street leading to the main shopping centre and on across the dual carriageway to meet the Basingstoke Canal. This is now a 32-mile waterway, for it no longer makes it all the way to Basingstoke. It was completed in 1794 and was intended to serve the purpose of agricultural development in Hampshire. It begins a few miles back towards London at West Byfleet, where it departs from the Wey Navigation, which comes down southward from the River Thames. Note that a 'navigation' follows the route of an existing river, while a canal follows a completely man-made course.

The first part of my ride along the towpath was a suburban section, but eventually countryside encroached and a series of locks carried the canal towards the higher level of Farnborough. The scenery became more wooded as things went on, with lots of ferns and evergreen trees. The railway line was ever-present, but not ever-visible, to my left. Now and again a train rattled through, reminding me of its presence.

There seemed to be a children's sponsored run taking place on this day, so my sense of tranquillity was not quite what it could have been. Kids aren't the best at getting out of the way of 'cyclists on a mission,' so I got to exercise my vocal chords with plenty of calls of 'excuse me' and 'coming through on the left.'

This section of canal took a pretty straight course, and having climbed past the final lock in the series, it ran through a cutting and would remain at this level for the rest of its course (save for one lock at Ash). Appropriately named Deepcut, the military village nearby hit the headlines in the early noughties (as fashionable people used to call the first ten years of the third millennium) for the fact that there were four deaths due to gunshot wounds between 1995 and 2002 at the Princess Royal Barracks.

The canal then opened out twice into expansive lakes as it rounded a corner and began to head southward at the eastern edge of the town of Farnborough. I was now in Hampshire and there was a miniature railway line to my right. As I moved on, gardens of middle class houses lined the opposite bank and the most notable thing was a chap doing some kind of DIY job with a gazebo, suddenly letting out a hearty exclamation as I cycled past. For crossword fanatics out there: 'pair of male glands, 8 letters, begins with B.'

The word was then repeated in a slightly quieter tone afterwards for added pathos. Much as I have tried to circumnavigate printing the word myself, I understand that this was even uttered in an episode of the USA children's cartoon 'The Flintstones.' It was one of those 'did I just hear that right?' moments, like when Rage Against the Machine's expletive laden rock track, 'Killing in the name of,' was played unexpurgated on BBC Radio 1's weekly 'top 40' chart rundown in the early nineties. The song returned with a vengeance to become Christmas number one in 2009, ousting the annual X Factor / karaoke single from the coveted position, but this time around the staff at the Beeb were more careful I am sure, although ironically the potency of the F-word has no doubt been diluted over this period by seventeen years of late evening chat show usage before an invited audience who shriek and applaud at every emanation.

Whilst I am not a fan of gratuitous swearing, the song does muster a justified level of defiance in its lyrics which seem to be aimed at racist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan, although they could easily apply to any authoritarian group or regime. I don't see any of the X Factor finalists dealing with such weighty issues, so the position at number one seems deserved.

This is going to sound old-mannish, but we do seem to be living in a cultural vacuum. I wonder if a subversive songsmith such as the young Bob Dylan would get anywhere in today's climate, even if the message was delivered in a modern style. Although, that said, listen to the lyrics of the Black Eyed Peas' 2003 hit 'Where is the love?' a little bit closer and you'll see that the odd thinking person's lyric does slip through the net now and again.

The canal route became less attractive as I continued, with a feel of abandonment creeping in. A plane was coming in low to land at Farnborough Airport as I pedalled onward. The aqueduct over the dual carriageway perked up my interest again. By now, the canal had resumed a westbound course, running to the north of Aldershot. The next town I encountered was Fleet, a settlement which generously gives its name to a service area on the mighty M3 motorway. I decided to leave the banks of the waterway and explore a bit.

The town centre comprises a long, straight street, with all the usual stores. There was a market square by the side of the road, but I soon found myself gravitating towards an outlet of a well known pub-chain. I ordered a pint of a local ale at a refreshing price (about a third less than your average pub) and sat down at a table near the back of the room.

It was time to torment a few people, as I took a photo of my pint and sent it to my girlfriend and two other friends. It was 'beer o'clock.' As certain friends of mine might say, I was 'living the dream,' so I made sure this phrase was liberally used in my captions to rub it in further. You could call this going on a 'smarm offensive.'

Feeling invigorated, I then took a wander up the main street to see what else was on offer. In a decadent moment, I popped into a branch of Marks and Spencer and settled upon a luxury king prawn and avocado sandwich. I was on holiday, so what the hell? Resuming my route, I paused at two different points to consume this flamboyant snack.

As I left the town, I passed a beer garden which sloped down from the canal to a pub, before continuing into the land of the trees, not even noticing where the River Hart crosses the canal. To be honest, I was expecting another aqueduct, but the only thing to really grab my attention here was a World War II pillbox. I took a look inside this small, brick structure, using the torch on my mobile phone to see, as I wandered around behind the entrance wall.

The canal's course was rather idiosyncratic at this point, with a huge 'ox-bow' taking place, so I temporarily lost my bearings. A bright red sign then instructed me to leave the towpath, which was closed ahead due to a landslip.

I took the trackway out to the Church Lane, passing a residence, before riding the tarmac to the village of Dogmersfield. The weather clearly wasn't playing ball now, with a thin drizzle steadily emanating from the now-grey sky, creating a slight haze over the open fields.

Beyond the village, another wide lane led me back to the canal and I entered a small parking area from which I could pick up the towpath again. I had a sense that the rain was going to intensify, so I kept my eyes open for suitable places that I could shelter under my tarpaulin for an hour or two should it become too much.

My backpack contained very little on these trips usually – apart from small items like a toothbrush and some writing paper, the bulk of the contents were a tarpaulin, a sleeping bag and a jacket. The idea behind all my trips is to travel as light as possible, because 'weight being carried on the back' is always in inverse proportion to 'enjoyment gained from the ride.'

Mentally, I was set on the goal of reaching Basingstoke, finding an outlet of a familiar pub chain and enjoying a nice chicken tikka (I know the menu off by heart in these places, you see). But now I wondered if this aim would be attainable. Still, I was outdoors, I was free and this was a million times better than work, so there was no need to start getting all negative!

In fact, it was nice to see the odd narrowboat gracefully navigating the canal at this point (note, these should not be confused with barges, which are wider vessels usually used for carrying cargo). At the beginning of my ride the surface had seemed quite heavily covered in algae, but by now things were becoming more touristic. Many of the boats were tied up at the side and covered in tarpaulin, presumably having been 'put to bed' for the winter, but there is always something quite reassuring about not being the only tourist out enjoying the canal when the rain begins to patter. I noticed a bird wading at the side at one point too, but I couldn't say if it was a stork or a heron. Probably neither.

It seemed that the 'bark' of the weather was worse than its bite, as this turned out to be just a brief shower. Soon a main road opted for a parallel course to my right, and the rush of traffic could now be heard. I decided to leave via the next bridge and get some sustenance from the village of North Warnborough. In truth, I didn't really see any of the village, as there was a garage right next to the bridge. I got a cup of vanilla coffee from the Costa machine and a Turkish Delight bar to wash it down. Or was it the other way round?

I then returned to the towpath and noticed that one of those annoying red signs was stating that beyond the bridge the path was too narrow for cyclists, disabled chariots and a number of other wheeled contraptions. I gave a metaphorical two fingers to this; I had cycled all the way from Woking and I had no intention of giving up on riding the last few miles just because some councillor had probably been grouchy one day about having to move six inches to let a cyclist pass. In fact I didn't notice any reduction in width compared to the previous sections I had cycled. Defiantly, I laid my bike down and found a bank covered in soft plant life on which to sit and consume my coffee and chocolate treat.

Generally I have found ramblers to be very tolerant towards cyclists. In the absence of a bell, I was having to resort to a polite 'excuse me' as I approached the backs of walkers, who would invariably stand aside as I passed thanking them profusely. I was half expecting some hostility, having passed the red sign nonchalantly, but I found the walkers to be just as obliging here as before. Occasionally I would lie and say, My bell's been stolen, for this was far simpler than explaining the circumstances which led to me riding this bell-less bargain of a bike.

I knew I was approaching the final miles of the 'canal proper,' as the waterway was becoming rather overgrown with reeds at this point, and it wasn't long before the towpath began to lead upward and I knew that this was the end. I chained up my bike (a wise precaution even in the most remote location, as we shall see later) and tramped down a steep trail etched into the bank. At the bottom I could see the entrance to Greywell Tunnel.

The tunnel, roughly three quarters of a mile in length, is now disused, having collapsed in the middle in 1932. However, a dystopian scene for humans can be ideal for nature, for the tunnel is now a listed site due to the bat population that makes its home in the cave-like surroundings.

Returning to my bike, the towpath ran over the mouth of the tunnel and led me out to a lane. There was a pub at a T-junction nearby, with a red phone box near the entrance. This was clearly there to enhance the rustic English scene. It's funny how a red phone box can seem quaint and picturesque, but if somebody wanted to erect a red sign near our homes we would say it was gaudy and unsightly.

I briefly, and slightly illegally, pedalled up a footpath which roughly followed the course of the tunnel, but when I reached a gate which led to a meadow, I decided not to push my luck and returned to the lane. This ran round in a big semi-circle to the south of the tunnelled area, and presented me with my first proper climb of the trip, raising my breath intake and providing some light cardio-vascular exercise. The scenery consisted of open, rolling fields, and the views were quite expansive, giving me a sense of being fairly high up.

I descended once again, and branched off of the lane to the right, to run down a gradually narrowing track, which led me back into woodlands, before sharply rounding the point where the west portal of the tunnel would have been, and descending to run beside the north bank of this now-derelict section of the canal.

This final mile or two had a distinct look of decay about it. The canal was now algae-ridden and overgrown with an all-pervading smell of dampness, yet once again, these were ideal conditions for wildlife to thrive in, and the area is regarded as a nature reserve. I passed beneath a few more bridges, rounded a bend where a short channel departed and soon found myself back beside the lane. Although the canal used to continue to Basingstoke, this really was the end. That chicken tikka was getting closer.

The roar of traffic on the M3 grew louder as the lane drew near and finally bridged it. Then I turned left, down beside a small industrial estate and crossed the A30 near a tempting looking pub. The next lane ran straight to the heart of Old Basing, a large village located a few miles to the east of Basingstoke. Turning left at the end of the lane, I passed some very old buildings as I wound my way through the trees towards the modern conurbation.

The lane was a dead end to cars, but provided a nice, quiet route for cyclists and walkers. Just before I passed beneath the subway under the dual carriageway, I had a look at the meadow next to the road. It was beginning to get dusky, so I thought I'd better have somewhere in mind for camping later on. There's nothing worse than cluelessly searching for a suitable spot in the dark, when you can't tell if you are well-hidden enough to be left alone by intruders or even if the ground is smooth enough to lay a groundsheet and sleeping bag upon.

I cleared away the fallen twigs from a bushy area in anticipation, but this would be a last resort, as camping in any kind of proximity to a river is not advised due to the abundance of gnats. I regularly camp in a private wood with some friends of mine and the late summer period is notorious for the little blighters. The experience of 'getting gnatted,' as we call it, is virtually synonymous with camping at this time of year.

I returned to the road and headed through the subway, into a strip of lakes and parkland that reminded of the then-futuristic '2015' version of Hill Valley in the Back to the Future films. I was half expecting Biff Tannen to come flying at me on a hoverboard at any moment. Above the trees you could see the modern office buildings of the town centre, looming over the place like corporate guardians.

I pressed on, past a shopping centre and headed up the pedestrianised road leading to Winchester Street, which forms Basingstoke's central thoroughfare, now superseded by many a bypass. All the usual suspects were there, from McDonald's to Wetherspoons. I headed for the latter. Meanwhile, a group of tramps were sitting in the central square consuming alcohol and making quite a lot of noise. It was Saturday night in Basingstoke and these guys weren't going to be left out!

The pub was quite discretely located, as I cycled straight past it initially. The choices of ale seemed to be generally pretty strong (unless you are a fan of the ubiquitous Doom Bar brand). The pint I selected was a meaty 5.5% alcohol, but went down surprisingly easy. I took a seat beneath a screen which was pumping out the latest turmoil from an agonised world in silence with subtitles ('BBC news on mute' in other words).

I sat beneath it so that I could concentrate on my notes for this book undisturbed by bombing, abuse, sadism, murder, violence, corruption, and all the other wonderful things that this planet has to offer. Excusing my cynicism, I do sometimes wonder if humanity is akin to an experiment that has gone horribly wrong. Is it really worth the cost in sheer suffering to have 'intelligent' life on earth?

In a universe of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, it is highly likely that intelligent life exists elsewhere. There should be civilisations millions of years more advanced than our own, but none have yet been able to reach us across the vast tracts of space and time (as far as we know). One explanation is that as soon as intelligent life evolves, it wipes itself out.

Humans (and all life) ultimately consist of the matter from exploded stars. With the knowledge we have, we are simply the universe observing itself, as a famous scientist once put it. Yet, we are too busy squabbling over oil, land, power, money, etc. to even notice what a miracle our existence

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